Biography of Betye Saar
Betye Irene Saar was born to middle-class parents Jefferson Maze Brown and Beatrice Lillian Parson (a seamstress), who had met each other while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is of mixed African-American, Irish, and Native American descent, and had no extended family.
Saar was exposed to religion and spirituality from a young age. Her mother was Episcopalian, and her father was a Methodist Sunday school teacher. After her father's death (due to kidney failure) in 1931, the family joined the church of Christian Science. She also had many Buddhist acquaintances.
Saar had clairvoyant abilities as a child. She remembers being able to predict events like her father missing the trolley. After her father's passing, she claims these abilities faded. At that point, she, her mother, younger brother, and sister moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles to live with her paternal grandmother, Irene Hannah Maze, who was a quilt-maker.
Later, the family moved to Pasadena, California to live with Saar's maternal great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys and her husband Robert E. Keys. Hattie was an influential figure in her life, who provided a highly dignified, Black female role model. Saar also recalls her mother maintaining a garden in that house, "You need nature somehow in your life to make you feel real. The bottom line in politics is: one planet, one people. And we are so far from that now."
As a child, Saar had a vivid imagination, and was fascinated by fairy tales. She also enjoyed collecting trinkets, which she would repair and repurpose into new creations. During their summer trips back to Watts, she and her siblings would "treasure-hunt" in her grandmother's backyard, gathering bottle caps, feathers, buttons, and other items, which Saar would then turn into dolls, puppets, and other gifts for her family members.
Spending time at her grandmother's house growing up, Saar also found artistic influence in the Watts towers, which were in the process of being built by Outsider artist and Italian immigrant Simon Rodia. The large-scale architectural project was a truly visionary environment built of seventeen interconnected towers made of cement and found objects. Watching the construction taught Saar that, "You can make art out of anything." She says she was "fascinated by the materials that Simon Rodia used, the broken dishes, sea shells, rusty tools, even corn cobs - all pressed into cement to create spires. To me, they were magical."
Education and Early Training
After high school, Saar took art classes at Pasadena City College for two years, before receiving a tuition award for minority students to study at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1947 she received her B.A. with a major in Design (a common career path pushed upon women of color at the time) and a minor in Sociology. Her original aim was to become an interior decorator. "Being from a minority family, I never thought about being an artist. But I could tell people how to buy curtains."
Saar then undertook graduate studies at California State University, Long Beach, as well as the University of Southern California, California State University, Northridge, and the American Film Institute. She originally began graduate school with the goal of teaching design. However, when she enrolled in an elective printmaking course, she changed focus and decided to pursue a career as an artist. She recalls, "I loved making prints. The move into fine art, it was liberating. It gave me the freedom to experiment."
Although she joined the Printmaking department, Saar says, "I was never a pure printmaker. I fooled around with all kinds of techniques." Her earliest works were on paper, using the soft-ground etching technique, pressing stamps, stencils, and found material onto her plates. The resulting impressions demonstrated an interest in spirituality, cosmology, and family.
In 1952, while still in graduate school, she married Richard Saar, a ceramist from Ohio, and had three daughters: Tracye, Alison, and Lezley. Balancing her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and graduate student posed various challenges, and she often had to bring one of her daughters to class with her. Alison and Lezley would go on to become artists, and Tracye became a writer.
In 1962, the couple and their children moved to a home in Laurel Canyon, California. Saar recalls, "We lived here in the hippie time. Down the road was Frank Zappa. [...] Cannabis plants were growing all over the canyon [...] We were as hippie-ish as hippie could be, while still being responsible." Betye and Richard divorced in 1968. Saar remained in the Laurel Canyon home, where she lives and works to this day.
In 1967, Saar visited an exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum of assemblage works by found object sculptor Joseph Cornell, curated by Walter Hopps. Art historian Ellen Y. Tani explains that, "Assemblage describes the technique of combining natural or manufactured materials with traditionally non-artistic media like found objects into three-dimensional constructions. So named in the mid-twentieth century by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, assemblage challenged the conventions of what constituted sculpture and, more broadly, the work of art itself."
Saar described Cornell's artworks as "jewel-like installations." His exhibition inspired her to begin creating her own diorama-like assemblages inside of boxes and wooden frames made from repurposed window sashes, often combining her own prints and drawings with racist images and items that she scavenged from yard sales and estate sales. Art historian Marci Kwon explains that what Saar learned from Cornell was "the use of found objects and the ideas that objects are more than just their material appearances, but have histories and lives and energies and resonances [...] a sense that objects can connect histories."
Saar recalls, "I had a friend who was collecting [derogatory] postcards, and I thought that was interesting. So I started collecting these things. I thought, this is really nasty, this is mean. This is like the word 'nigger,' you know? Many of these things were made in Japan, during the '40s. I think in some countries, they probably still make them. In a way, it's like, slavery was over, but they will keep you a slave by making you a salt-shaker. I said to myself, if Black people only see things like this reproduced, how can they aspire to anything else?"
While starting out her artistic career, Saar also developed her own line of greeting cards, and partnered with designer Curtis Tann to make enameled jewelry under the moniker Brown & Tann, which they sold out of Tann's living room. Brown and Tann were featured in the Fall 1951 edition of Ebony magazine. Curator Helen Molesworth explains, "Like many artists working in California at that time, she played in the spaces between art and craft, not making too much distinction between the two."
In the late 1960s, Saar became interested in the civil rights movement, and she used her art to explore African-American identity and to challenge racism in the art world. In 1970, she met several other Black women artists (including watercolorist Sue Irons, printmaker Yvonne Cole Meo, painter Suzanne Jackson, and pop artist Eileen Abdulrashid) at Jackson's Gallery 32. The group collaborated on an exhibition titled Sapphire (You've Come a Long Way, Baby), considered the first contemporary African-American women's exhibition in California.
In 1973, Saar sat on the founding board for Womanspace, a cultural center for Feminist art and community, founded by woman artists and art historians in Los Angeles. The following year, she and fellow African-American artist Samella Lewis organized a collective show of Black women artists at Womanspace called Black Mirror. Saar was shocked by the turnout for the exhibition, noting, "The white women did not support it. It was as if we were invisible."
Saar gained further inspiration from a 1970 field trip with fellow Los Angeles artist David Hammons to the National Conference of Artists in Chicago, during which they visited the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. There, she was introduced to African and Oceanic art, and was captivated by its ritualistic and spiritual qualities. She recalls that the trip "opened my eyes to Indigenous art, the purity of it. All the main exhibits were upstairs, and down below were the Africa and Oceania sections, with all the things that were not in vogue then and not considered as art - all the tribal stuff. Of course, I had learned about Africa at school, but I had never thought of how people there used twigs or leather, unrefined materials, natural materials."
A couple years later, she travelled to Haiti. She recalls, "I said, 'If it's Haiti and they have voodoo, they will be working with magic, and I want to be in a place with living magic.'" After these encounters, Saar began to replace the Western symbols in her art with African ones. She also did more traveling, to places like Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, and Senegal. During these trips, she was constantly foraging for objects and images (particularly devotional ones) and notes, "Wherever I went, I'd go to religious stores to see what they had."
In 1974, following the death of her Aunt Hattie, Saar was compelled to explore autobiography in writing, and enrolled in a workshop titled "Intensive Journal" at the University of California at Los Angeles, which was based off of the psychological theory and method of American psychotherapist Ira Progroff. She recalls, "One exercise was this: Close your eyes and go down into your deepest well, your deepest self. Whatever you meet there, write down. I had this vision. There was water and a figure swimming. I had a feeling of intense sadness. I started to weep right there in class. Later I realized that of course the figure was myself." Saar found the self-probing, stream-of-consciousness techniques to be powerful, and the reliance on intuition was useful inspiration for her assemblage-making process as well.
In the late 1970s, Saar began teaching courses at Cal State Long Beach, and at the Otis College of Art and Design. Painter Kerry James Marshall took a course with Saar at Otis College in the late 1970s, and recalls that "in her class, we made a collage for the first critique. We were then told to bring the same collage back the next week, but with changes, and we kept changing the collage over and over and over, throughout the semester. From that I got the very useful idea that you should never let your work become so precious that you couldn't change it."
Marshall also asserts, "One of the things that gave [Saar's] work importance for African-American artists, especially in the mid-70s, was the way it embraced the mystical and ritualistic aspects of African art and culture. Her art really embodied the longing for a connection to ancestral legacies and alternative belief systems - specifically African belief systems - fueling the Black Arts Movement." Saar has remarked that, "If you are a mom with three kids, you can't go to a march, but you can make work that deals with your anger."
In the late 1980s, Saar's work grew larger, often filling entire rooms. She began to explore the relationship between technology and spirituality. In 1987, she was artist in residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), during which time she produced one of her largest installations, Mojotech (1987), which combined both futuristic/technological and ancient/spiritual objects. In 1989, she stated, "I can no longer separate the work by saying this deals with the occult and this deals with shamanism or this deals with so and so.... It's all together and it's just my work."
In 1990, Saar attempted to elude categorization by announcing that she did not wish to participate in exhibitions that had "Woman" or "Black" in the title. She stated, "I made a decision not to be separatist by race or gender. [...] What do I hope the nineties will bring? Wholistic integration - not that race and gender won't matter anymore, but that a spiritual equality will emerge that will erase issues of race and gender."
In the 1990s, Saar was granted several honorary doctorate degrees from the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland (1991), Otis/Parson in Los Angeles (1992), the San Francisco Art Institute (1992), the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston (1992), and the California Art Institute in Los Angeles (1995).
In 1997, Saar became involved in a divisive controversy in the art world regarding the use of derogatory racial images, when she spearheaded a letter-writing campaign criticizing African-American artist Kara Walker. Walker had won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Genius Award that year, and created silhouetted tableaus focused on the issue of slavery, using found images. Saar took issue with the way that Walker's art created morally ambiguous narratives in which everyone, black and white, slave and master, was presented as corrupt. Saar asserted that Walker's art was made "for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment," and reinforced racism and racist stereotypes of African-Americans.
Saar continues to live and work in Laurel Canyon on the side of a ravine with platform-like rooms and gardens stacked upon each other. The division between personal space and workspace is indistinct as every area of the house is populated by the found objects and trinkets that Saar has collected over the years, providing perpetual fodder for her art projects.
The Legacy of Betye Saar
Saar was a key player in the post-war American legacy of assemblage. Art historian Ellen Y. Tani notes, "Saar was one of the only women in the company of [assemblage] artists like George Herms, Ed Kienholz, and Bruce Conner who combined worn, discarded remnants of consumer culture into material meditations on life and death. Like them, Saar honors the energy of used objects, but she more specifically crafts racially marked objects and elements of visual culture - namely, black collectibles, or racist tchotchkes - into a personal vocabulary of visual politics."
Moreover, in regards to her articulation of a visual language of Black identity, Tani notes that "Saar articulated a radically different artistic and revolutionary potential for visual culture and Black Power: rather than produce empowering representations of Black people through heroic or realistic means, she sought to reclaim the power of the derogatory racial stereotype through its material transformation."
Art historian Kellie Jones recognizes Saar's representations of women as anticipating 1970s feminist art by a decade. Although Saar has often objected to being relegated to categorization within Identity Politics such as Feminist art or African-American art, her centrality to both of these movements is undeniable. She has been particularly influential in both of these areas by offering a view of identity that is intersectional, that is, that accounts for various aspects of identity (like race and gender) simultaneously, rather than independently of one another. Curator Helen Molesworth argues that Saar was a pioneer in producing images of Black womanhood, and in helping to develop an "African American aesthetic" more broadly, as "In the 1960s and '70s there were very few models of black women artists that Saar could emulate."
Molesworth continues, asserting that "One of the hallmarks of Saar's work is that she had a sense of herself as both unique - she was an individual artist pursuing her own aims and ideas - and as part of a grand continuum of [...] the nearly 400-year long history of black people in America. [...] Her interest in the myriad representations of blackness became a hallmark of her extraordinary career." Similarly, Kwon asserts that Saar is "someone who is able to understand that valorizing, especially black women's history, is itself a political act."
Saar's attitude toward identity, assemblage art, and a visual language for Black art can be seen in the work of contemporary African-American artist Radcliffe Bailey, and Post-Black artist Rashid Johnson, both of whom repurpose a variety of found materials, diasporic artifacts, and personal mementos (like family photographs) to be used in mixed-media artworks that explore complex notions of racial and cultural identity, American history, mysticism, and spirituality.
Since the 1980s, Saar and her daughters Allison and Lezley have dialogued through their art, to explore notions of race, gender, and specifically, Black femininity, with Allison creating bust- and full-length nude sculptures of women of color, and Lezley creating paintings and mixed-media works that explore themes of race and gender. Art historian Jessica Dallow understands Allison and Lezley's artistic trajectories as complexly indebted to their mother's "negotiations within the feminist and black consciousness movements", noting that, like Betye's oeuvre, Allisons's large-scale nudes reveal "a conscious knowledge of art and art historical debates surrounding essentialism and a feminine aesthetic," as well as of "African mythology and imagery systems," and stress "spirituality, ancestry, and multiracial identities."
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
First published on 24 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly